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PUBLIC SEWER SYSTEMS: When a City Makes an Offer

Posted 2005

When a City makes an offer... Make sure you know what you are getting into before you sign one the dotted line.

I received a call one night from a concerned homeowner. She had just replaced her septic system to the tune of $8,000.00. However, the nearby town wanted to hook-up all of the people in her neighborhood to the local city sewer service. This woman, of course, did not want to do this because she had just spent a considerable amount of money on her own upgrade. She asked if I could come to the community meeting to speak on her and the other neighbors’ behalf. Having just gotten off of a ten day road trip I did not relish the thought of driving 4 hours on icy roads, yet I understood her concerns and agreed to go.

When I arrived at the City Hall I quickly looked over the City’s proposal. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. $10,300 was the estimated cost of running the sewer mains and $120.00 was the yearly cost for treatment. All in all, one of the best pricing packages I had ever heard of.

When the Mayor got up and started the meeting he came across not as a mayor, but more as a salesman. He was wearing the big smile and speaking in a tone of voice (Have I got a deal for you!). He proceeded to tell the people how great this would be for their community and how cheap it was going to be for them, as homeowners, and they may even be able to obtain a grant from the State to pay for part of this annexation process.

But then, he made a mistake. He started cutting down septic systems. "Septic systems are no good," he stated. "They fail all the time. They ruin the lakes and they are expensive. Many of you would have to go on mound systems and mound systems are real bad. In fact, they are so bad that Wisconsin is outlawing them."

At that point I felt I should correct him. I stood up and said, "Excuse me sir, but I believe you may have some errant information. Septic systems do a very effective job of treating waste water. In fact, they can do a better job of treating waste water than most sewage treatment facilities, and will do it far cheaper than a treatment plant. As far as mound systems are concerned, mound systems are being used more than ever in the State of Wisconsin because they are such an effective treatment method. Believe it or not, the first mound system installed in Wisconsin back in 1968 is still functioning today." "I don’t agree with that," he snapped at me, signaling me to sit down.

A second city representative stood up and took over. Once again, he began cutting down septic systems. When he stepped over the line I stood up to say something and he glared at me and said, "Why don’t you just sit down? You don’t even live in this community." Several people in the back of the room started saying, "Let’s hear what this guy has to say." Reluctantly they gave me the floor.

I quickly turned to the Mayor and said, "I have been researching septic systems since 1986. Some of my research findings are now being recognized by Universities in the United States and Canada, so I think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to septic systems. As far as your City Sewage Treatment Program is concerned, let me ask a few questions. This estimate of $10,300. Is that per household or per lot?" The Mayor mumbled, "Per lot." I said, "So, if someone owns three lots they will be paying more than $30K. Isn’t that right?" "Yes," he said sheepishly.

I then said, "And this $10,300 is just an estimate isn’t it? It could go up considerably, particularly if you hit bedrock, right?" "Yeah," he said. By this time the murmurings were getting louder and louder in the back of the room. "And did you bother to tell these people that this $10,300 does not include the cost of hooking up to the sewer? That is just the cost to run the sewer mains out to their neighborhoods? And the cost to hook up to these sewer mains will run $1,000 to $6,000?" He snapped indignantly, "It won’t cost more than $2,000." I said, "Yeah, if their house is located 30 feet off the road. But what happens if they are located 300 feet off the road and have heavy trees on their lot? Now they are easily looking at $6,000.

And as long as we’re on the subject, you keep touting the state grant program that may help pay for this project. But did you bother to tell these people that very few communities actually qualify for those grants. But on the other side, did you tell these people that most of them could upgrade, or totally replace their systems, for $3,000 to $8,000?" No answer, but plenty of mumbles from the crowd.

"And one more point," I continued, "Right now you are saying that the cost of treatment will be $120.00 per year. But what happens when you hook all these houses into your treatment plant and the plant cannot keep up? Now you have to expand the capacity of that plant which means everyone’s yearly cost is going to go up considerably to pay for that expansion." The Mayor snapped at me, "Our treatment plant can easily handle the houses from this neighborhood." I said, "Sure it can now, but what happens when you sucker three or four more neighborhoods into this deal? You won’t have a choice. You will have to expand that treatment plant and anyone that is hooked up is going to have to pay for it." Needless to say, when the homeowners had all of the facts, the annexation was voted down.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that treatment plants are bad. To the contrary, in some cases they are the only option. What I am saying is everyone involved should be made aware of all the options and ramifications. Let’s face it, sewage treatment facilities are not a charitable organization. They are in operation to generate profits and the homeowners that are facing these choices should be aware of that.

Another situation people should be made aware of, often an entire community is sold on the idea (by a few key people) that a treatment plant is the only answer to their sewage problems, consequently these few people convince the entire community to enter into a tremendous financial commitment to build this plant only to see the costs quickly double, triple, or even worse.

And naturally, you don’t stop a project after several million dollars, so they are stuck with it. In many cases, these communities could have dealt with their sewage problems by simply up-grading or replacing their existing septic systems at a fraction of the cost. But people get sold a bill of goods on high technology and learn lessons the hard (and expensive) way.

So when the someone [the city] comes to you with a big smile on their face, saying, "Have I got a deal for you," make sure you read all of the fine print. Septic systems, if they are properly designed, properly installed, and properly maintained by the homeowner, are one of the most effective methods of dealing with household waste water. And as an added bonus, they are usually ½ to 1/10 the cost of having the city plant treat your waste water, but the catch is, they have to be properly designed, installed and maintained by the people that use them.

Last Updated: Dec 07, 08

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